Guest article

“The General Act on Equal Treatment needs to be reformed urgently”

Germany has one of the weakest anti-discrimination laws in Europe. This must finally change, says Ferda Ataman, the Federal Commissioner for Anti-Discrimination.

Author
Ferda Ataman
Photos
Sarah Eick, Julia Teek
Date
February 01, 2024

Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental right in Germany. And this fundamental right is of great importance, especially now, a time in which racist and inhumane narratives are gaining ground. For people with a history of migration, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, Jews, Muslims and many others, life has changed in recent years. Many are worried about their future and the safety of their families in Germany.

Our democracy therefore needs effective protection against discrimination now. What many people don't realize: In 2024, Germany still has one of the weakest anti-discrimination laws in Europe. The General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) came into force in 2006. And Germany was a very different place in 2006. Be it the population, the internet, social media, artificial intelligence, mobility, medical care, the economy – there is hardly an area that has not changed significantly. Eighteen years later, however, the substance of the law has not once been reformed.

About the author

Ferda Ataman

Ferda Ataman has been the Independent Federal Commissioner for Anti-Discrimination and Head of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency in Germany since July 2022. A political scientist by training, she worked for several years at the Ministry for Intergenerational Affairs, Family, Women and Integration in North Rhine-Westphalia and as Head of Division at the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency. She has also worked as a book author, journalist and columnist. Furthermore, she set up the "Mediendienst Integration", a scientific information platform for journalists, which is also funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Back in 2016, the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency evaluated the AGG and found it to be weak, full of gaps and outdated. It protects too few people, isn’t applicable to important areas of life and sets the hurdle too high for those who want to take action against discrimination. In order to effectively protect people from discrimination and enforce their fundamental right to equal treatment and dignity, the General Act on Equal Treatment must be reformed – as the coalition agreement stipulates. And it must happen now.

So far, the AGG applies to the private sector, but not to the state

Protection against discrimination does not apply everywhere. It applies in employment law and in the so-called mass market, such as on the housing market, in retail establishments or in restaurants. If a waiter uses a racial slur against a customer, the customer can take legal action under the AGG. If an employee at a public job center does so, however, such action is not possible: The General Act on Equal Treatment is binding for the private sector, but not for the state itself.

Yet, the state should not demand something from companies that it does not demand of itself. It should not only participate in protecting against discrimination, but also set a good example. Otherwise, it lacks credibility, the cost of which is trust. Discrimination is not always intentional; sometimes unequal treatment happens without malicious intent. But it is still unfair. That makes binding rules for everyone all the more important.

Extending the General Act on Equal Treatment means protecting more people

Not everything people perceive as unfair is legally considered discrimination. The General Act on Equal Treatment prohibits discrimination against people "on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual identity" (Section 1, AGG). But the AGG does not apply when people are treated unfavorably due to their social status. Changing this would send an important signal.

Topic

Immigration Society

Learn more

In the topic of immigration society, the Robert Bosch Stiftung focuses on municipalities as the level where integration can be positively shaped, with the participation of (migrant) civil society and local business. A second focus is on improving the equal participation and representation of people with a history of migration. We encourage power-sharing between institutions and less established groups in migrant civil society and promote the empowerment of migrant civil society.

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Poor people, single parents, homeless people and others have garnered little attention in politics or have even been further marginalized, as seen in the German public debate on the so-called 'Bürgergeld', which translates to 'citizens’ income'. Especially now, at a time when some politicians repeatedly label and defame recipients of social benefits as a problem group that doesn’t want to work. Populism against the poor is in vogue at the moment. As a result, discrimination based on social status is growing.

Requests for advice from the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency already show that many people are suffering the effects. They come to us because they read in a housing ad that “unemployed people or people with unemployment benefits will not be considered,” because their bank account fees increase as their income decreases, or because, as a homeless person, they are not allowed inside the supermarket . This is discrimination. The AGG should also prohibit discrimination on the basis of social status.  The Berlin State Anti-Discrimination Act already shows this is possible.

Parents or caregiving relatives are also often affected by discrimination

Anyone, not only recipients of social benefits, can at some point be affected by discrimination. Getting older, accessibility issues due to a chronic illness or simply having children can be a reason. This is shown by an Anti-Discrimination Agency study that looked into discrimination against parents and family caregivers. According to the study, over 70 percent of mothers surveyed experienced at least one discriminatory situation at work during their pregnancy. Discrimination also occurs when people take parental leave. Here, fathers come under more pressure than mothers. Discrimination doesn’t stop when people return to work after parental leave.

Topic

Inequality

Learn more

In the topic of Inequality, the Robert Bosch Stiftung supports projects that reduce inequality systemically, considering power inequalities and multiple layers of oppression. For sustainable change, disadvantaged groups in particular must be included in the development of joint solutions.

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Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that outdated social roles persist and make life difficult for families. People who care for relatives are also at a disadvantage in the work environment. To ensure that parents and caregivers do not suffer from burnout and resulting career setbacks, family care responsibilities must also be included in the AGG.

More protection against discrimination strengthens democracy - also against the shift to the right

Those who contact the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency take our democracy seriously. They know discrimination is illegal and want to defend themselves. But only very few  have the courage to assert their rights in court. This costs time, money and nerves. To ensure people are not alone, a reform of the AGG should introduce the right to sue as an association. This would allow recognized anti-discrimination associations to stand by people and take legal action on their behalf when laws are violated.

Introducing this right would also send a signal. It would remind people to take laws seriously. This has already been confirmed in other areas. The right of associations to sue in cases of consumer protection has led to a stricter observance of laws. A success the AGG should build on.   

In August, the General Act on Equal Treatment will turn 18. A good time to allow it to mature and to develop it into a modern and effective protection against discrimination. The reform proposals are on the table. The federal government must now get to work, take responsibility and implement the promised AGG reform. Strong anti-discrimination protection is a priority. It is not a charity project, but a necessary investment in protecting our fundamental rights. Strengthening protection against discrimination means strengthening our democracy against a swing to the right.

 

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